Conservation news

Our fires weren’t as bad as in the Amazon, Indonesian officials claim

Fires in peat land in Pedamaran of South Sumatra's Ogan Komering Ilir district. Image by Nopri Isim/Mongabay-Indonesia.

  • Indonesian officials say their handling of forest fires this year has been much better than in other places, including the Amazon.
  • But while the claim of a smaller burned area than in the Amazon holds true, the Indonesian fires have churned out nearly double the greenhouse gas emissions as the burning in Brazil.
  • Environmental activists also say the much-touted regulations and preventive measures credited with keeping the fires from getting much bigger were largely ineffective, given the scale of the burning.
  • Officials say they plan to adopt technological solutions for the upcoming fire season, including cloud seeding and the use of drones for early detection of hotspots.

JAKARTA — The Indonesian government has attempted to downplay the scale of its land and forest fires this year by saying things weren’t as bad as in the Amazon or elsewhere, drawing criticism from activists.

The fires, most of them started in order to clear land for planting, razed 9,424 square kilometers (3,639 square miles) as of the end of October, according to data from the environment ministry. The figure is expected to exceed 10,000 km2 (3,860 mi2) by the end of the year.

That’s not as bad as in the Amazon, said Doni Monardo, the head of the country’s national disaster mitigation agency, BNPB.

“Actually we don’t need to be too discouraged because our efforts have been quite good considering that fires happen not only in our country, but almost all over the world,” he said at a meeting of top government officials on Dec. 6.

Doni cited the fires in the Brazilian Amazon, which contributed to the destruction of 7,604 km2 (2,970 mi2) of rainforest through September, an 85 percent increase over the same period last year. In Bolivia, more than 20,000 km2 (7,720 mi2) of land has been burned this year.

“In California, tens of thousands of people have been evacuated,” Doni added. “In Australia, they haven’t been able to extinguish the fires until today. For the first time in history, the haze entered the capital capital [Canberra].

“It means that the efforts that we’ve done together have given an impact that’s quite good, even though we’re not satisfied yet,” he said.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Mahfud M.D., Indonesia’s chief security minister, agreed that Indonesia was still better off than most of those other countries.

“We are thankful that in 2019 we could handle forest fires better than other countries that also have troubles with forest and land fires,” he said. “While we still had fires in several different places in 2019, Indonesia is the most secure.”

A recent fire in the dry forests of the Bolivian Amazon. Image courtesy of MAAP with data from Planet.

Apples and oranges

Any comparative measure of just how bad the fires in Indonesia have been shouldn’t just account for the total area burned, said Khalisah Khalid, the head of policy at the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi).

Instead, she said, it should consider the volume of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. Much of the burning in Indonesia occurred on carbon-rich peatlands, in contrast to the mineral soils of the Amazon. As a result, the fires in Indonesia unleashed at least 708 million tons of greenhouse gases — nearly double the 366 million tons churned out by the burning in the Brazilian Amazon, according to recent research.

Khalisah also questioned why the government was attributing its relative “success” to policies adopted after a particularly severe fire season in 2015.

“Compared to 2015, indeed the number [of fires] is down,” she told Mongabay. “But how much money have we spent and how many regulations have we issued? All these have proven to not be able to answer the problems of fires yet. We’re worried that with such a massive number [of fires this year], our commitment will be questioned again during the U.N. climate talks [in Madrid].”

World Resource Institute (WRI) Indonesia forest and climate senior manager Arief Wijaya said using the size of areas burned to compare the severity of fires is misleading because the percentage of forest coverage relative to overall land differs for each country.

A more objective approach would be to compare the percentage of forest burned, he added.

“From an area perspective, the size of forest fires in Indonesia are smaller than in Brazil because Indonesia has smaller forest coverage,” Arief said as quoted by The Jakarta Post. “The size ratio is around 1:3 if I’m not mistaken.”

Road running through drained and burned peatlands. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Negligent

The real-time response from the government during the peak of the burning in August and September was also controversial. The president’s chief of staff, Moeldoko, called on people affected by the haze to be patient and pray, blaming the disaster squarely on “God.”

The chief security minister at the time, Wiranto, had a different take, blaming smallholders for setting the fires. He then also claimed that there was a political angle to the arson, linking the burning to the elections that took place in April.

Activists, meanwhile, blame the recurring fires on large-scale pulpwood and palm oil plantations peppered throughout the country, especially those established on easily-flammable peatlands.

This year, the government has sealed off palm oil plantations operated by 64 companies over forest and peat-land fires, suspecting some of the companies of deliberately causing the blazes.

Of the total, 20 are foreign-invested companies, mostly from Malaysia and Singapore. Five of them been named as suspects as hot spots have been detected in their concessions.

Production of palm oil — used in numerous everyday goods from shampoo to cookies — has been blamed by environmentalists for driving massive deforestation.

As his top officials engaged in a blame game, President Joko Widodo visited Sumatra’s Riau province, one of the worst-affected regions, and told them that “we’ve been negligent again [this year], so the haze has become big.”

The fires also revived the problem of transboundary haze, with smoke from the peat fires drifting across the Malacca Strait and Borneo and sending air pollution indexes in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and other cities to hazardous levels.

Fires in peat land in Cengal of South Sumatra’s Ogan Komering Ilir district. Image by Nopri Isim/Mongabay-Indonesia.

Tech solutions

Despite downplaying the severity of this year’s fires, the government said it would strengthen fire-prevention efforts next year through various measures. These include technological solutions such as cloud seeding and the use of more sophisticated drones to better monitor areas prone to fires.

“We have to direct our actions to preventive measures without having to wait until the dry season kicks in,” Mahfud said. “Specifically, I would like to emphasize that we might need to consider weather monitoring all year-round. With technology, we can manage rain patterns, and thus we can modify weather from January onward.”

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar agreed, saying that as long as there was sufficient cloud cover, then cloud seeding could be carried out. “We’ll start in 2020 to manage the rhythm of precipitation all year round,” she added.

The environment ministry’s director of fire mitigation, Raffles Panjaitan, said the ministry would have a dedicated budget for weather modification starting next year. He said the priority would be Riau province, where the dry season is expected to start as early as February.

The government is also looking in to the possibility of deploying more advanced drones to monitor hotspots. Military chief Hadi Tjahjanto, whose soldiers were deployed in firefighting efforts, said drones could prove invaluable in early detection fires before they spread out of control. This could save the precious hours it currently takes to detect a fire hotspot by satellite, he said.

Doni of the BNPB said the drones currently in use in Indonesia were “not optimal,” and that they would have to import more sophisticated models used in other countries.

The officials also discussed non-technological measures for fire prevention, including strengthening the management of forest areas at the local level, and granting communities greater access to manage carbon-rich peatlands under the environment ministry’s social forestry program.

The ministry recently issued a regulation allowing local communities to use peatlands for their livelihoods, including for sourcing non-timber products and for agroforestry. The idea is that peatlands managed this way by these communities are less likely to be burned.

Minister Siti said her office planned to distribute 2,590 km2 (1,000 mi2) of peat areas to local communities under this scheme.

 

Banner image: Fires in peat land in Pedamaran of South Sumatra’s Ogan Komering Ilir district. Image by Nopri Isim/Mongabay-Indonesia.

 

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